Summary: Chapter 20

With Stephen’s help, Uncle built a garden in the yard. Everyone in the family gathered ferns, mushrooms, and berries to eat. In 1943, Stephen and Naomi started attending an all-Japanese school. One day they played in the woods with Kenji and Miyuki, two of their classmates. They climbed up to Minnie’s Bluff, where they saw a kingbird. Kenji said that according to Rough Lock Bill, an ornery local man, kingbirds slice the tongues of liars in half.


In these chapters, Naomi gives herself over fully to the past, immersing herself in memories of her childhood. Perhaps because of the power and immediacy of Aunt Emily’s letters, and Naomi’s own internalization of Aunt Emily’s insistence that the past must be faced, Naomi manages to get over her initial unwillingness to remember old and painful memories. Instead of shifting back and forth between World War II and present day affairs, as in earlier chapters, the narrative in chapters 15 through 20 settles in the 1940s. By sticking with the World War II era storyline, these chapters show Naomi’s new willingness to remember her childhood. At the same time, stepping away from the present day storyline allows us, the readers, to become absorbed in the Slocan plot.

By playing with the ornamental doll, the young Naomi retains a connection to her distant mother. She also channels her own feelings into the toy. She imagines that despite her impassive face, the train ride privately excites the doll. Pretending to make the doll talk, she offers Stephen food and entertainment. Naomi is too retiring and perhaps traumatized to express these feelings and impulses in her own voice, but the doll gives her a vent for her emotions.

The loss of the doll is an important marker of Naomi’s increasing worldliness. Since the doll is associated with Naomi’s mother, its absence suggests the distance Naomi feels from her mother, the ultimate protector of her innocence. Perhaps even more significant than the loss is Naomi’s response to that loss. By Chapter 17, she has stopped asking for her doll, which points to her ability to endure hardship uncomplainingly, and her increasing awareness that adults can’t fix every problem. Earlier in the same chapter, the young Naomi loses another piece of her innocence when she shoulders the adult responsibility of helping the sick, elderly Nomura-obasan use the outhouse.

But Naomi is still unmistakably a child, and her youth can be a source of frustration. Unlike Stephen, she is often left in the dark because adults consider her too young to handle disturbing information. As a result, she doesn’t know key facts, such as where their father is. While she makes tentative steps toward maturity in these chapters, she is still easily confused. When Kenji tells her kingbirds cut out the tongues of liars, she half believes him, lying awake at night and worrying about the lies the bird has heard. On the other hand, Naomi’s youth protects her. Unlike Stephen, she doesn’t quite grasp the reality of death or imprisonment, and the difficulties of their lives don’t fill her with a sense of injustice, as they do him. She sits placidly drawing during Grandma Nakane’s funeral, while Stephen sulks, a tableau that illustrates the siblings’ different attitudes.

Despite the difficulty of the family’s situation, these chapters contain rays of hope. The removal of Stephen’s cast and the onset of spring create a sense of rejuvenation. Most important is the arrival of Uncle. His fatherly presence comforts everyone, and he makes significant improvements to the cabin and the yard. With Uncle and Obasan reunited, the makeshift family is complete. Still, despite the relative cheer of this portion of the novel, makeshift is the operative word. Uncle and Obasan stand in for Naomi and Stephen’s parents, but they can’t replace them.